Mom, I Think I've Been Shot

5 years ago

"Mom, I think I've been shot."

I'm dashing around, trying to complete one of many tasks that will, inevitably, remain incomplete. I dejectedly turn my attention from the half-loaded dishwasher, the disinfectant wipes I tore upon hoping to at least wipe down the table, the online banking site open on my laptop, and a wistful eye on Laundry Mountain.

A deep sigh (it's mine).

"I promise you, you weren't shot," I say flatly.

While you might think I should sound more concerned, please understand that while my home is a disastrous place for many other reasons, the odds of being shot in our quiet, suburban neighborhood are really quite low. Occasionally we will hear abrupt, loud bangs, but they are - without exception - industrious neighbors hammering picket fences, a recycling truck or someone installing underground sprinklers.

My son continues, deeply concerned. "Mom, I need immediate treatment. Come quick." He holds up the body part in question so I can examine it. It's his pointer finger...on which I see absolutely nothing unusual. Upon closer inspection, I suspect he's complaining of a hangnail or a paper cut. I have no idea. But more than a bandage, he needs reassurance that he has not, indeed, been shot.

This started a couple of years ago. He's always been a clingy, anxious kid, and he began taking Prozac long before I care to admit. The medications are what allow us to actually leave the house, though. For as long as I remember, he was scared of birthday parties, costumed characters, darkness, certain songs, certain movie scenes. Colic has nothing on the crying spells we endured when he was a baby. Sometimes I could identify the fear-inducing agent; other times I had no clue. Separation anxiety also entered the mix.

Unfortunately, this particular phobia has proven stubborn and persistent. Sadly, I think he will be fighting this one for the long-term.

At 10, he is a smart, creative, affectionate and heartful child. People are constantly telling me that he is special (special like sweet and sincere...not like in the euphemistic sense), that he touches their heart. He really is good down the soul. Unfortunately, that purity and kindness coexists with deeply rooted anxiety and fear. His intelligence counter-intuitively exacerbates the symptoms, fueling his imagination, and proving to be tragically debilitating.

When it comes to the WORRIES, we are at first patient, sympathetic, supportive. We consult with psychologists, specialists and cognitive behavioral therapists, trying a variety of methods and antidotes: worry time; absurdities; talk therapy; role playing; journals; ignoring; exposure; catchphrases; rules; lockboxes. We send the WORRIES packing. We feed them to the fishes. We read books about tomatoes, worry hills and buckets (he has now hidden the books and refuses to read even one more).

We are proud of him for his perseverance in overcoming his anxiety enough to keep going. He triumphantly  reports that the good parts of the day outnumbered the WORRY parts. We're relieved and slightly concerned that our son insists and achieves in keeping his fears private, although we question what classmates think when he randomly groans, dramatically clutches his throat and checks his own pulse during math.

His hypochondria begins with himself and extends to those he loves. To him, a shaving cut indicates an infected limb that must be amputated or I will die. If his father is running a few minutes behind, his "go-to" reaction is that his father must be the victim of a fatal car accident, not simply traffic. He touches the dog's nose to see if it feels colder or hotter than yesterday. His sister is not breathing rhythmically enough in her sleep. A little rain indicates the onset of another Hurricane Katrina.

We have a few possible explanations for what triggered this extreme condition, but nothing as dramatic as one might think. We're very blessed that those closest to us are alive, albeit with the various ups and downs of the living. Our son does have a congenital neurological/medical condition that clearly is using his brain as a playground. In private, we call him "best case scenario," because we know we are fortunate that these symptoms would be considered "high functioning" on the spectrum of his condition.

But these WORRIES are like having an unwanted stranger living in our home. They take up too much space. They emerge when we least expect it, and we sometimes fail to recognize that they are there, causing inexplicable mood changes, stubbornness and sleeplessness.
he WORRIES can't answer for themselves, we lose patience and get angry at our son; frustrated. How can such a literal, rational person be so IRRATIONAL?

Lately, all he wants to read are biographies. Mostly of American presidents and historical figures. Do you know what happens in most every one of these books? Someone dies. Often multiple people die of things like smallpox, polio, whooping cough or an influenza epidemic (and gunshots, of course). These diseases become part of our daily dialogues and evening recitation of reassurance. It's both infuriating and devastating to see a child so constantly agitated. We simultaneously laugh and weep when a new WORRY de jour reveals itself. One day it's Yellow Fever; the next could be Guinea Worm.

He sometimes won't open his mouth for fear of throwing up (I've learned there's a medical term for this too: emetophobia). He won't eat lunch for the same reason...but then he fears he will die of starvation by bedtime. Every grumble, churn, groan, itch, twinge or pulse in his body alarm him of impending disaster. He is pleasantly surprised every time he burps and has not died.

As parents, we discuss the pros and cons of promising him that we all will wake up in the morning, so please go to sleep. This becomes especially challenging when his friend's father dies in his sleep. Of course, we are devastated for the family, but I shamefully admit that my reaction includes a twinge of self-pity and defeatism. 

He comforts himself with the declaration that he will achieve fame and fortune by inventing a potion for immortality. He will create something that will allow all of us to live forever. And he insists that we agree that it is so. I question, if it gets him through the day and night, why wouldn't we? Don't we all want to instill in our children the confidence that they can achieve anything? Who am I to define the line between realistic and ridiculous? I wonder what the mothers of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein would say. (Actually, I can just ask my son; I'm sure he'll know.)

I try very hard not to lie to my child, because I know he will unravel when I inevitably am proven a liar. However, I find myself more and more promising him things that I can't possibly guarantee, anything to free my joyful, silly, sweet son from the prison of his worries. I am concerned about how he will react when tragedy does hit closer to home.

You see, they're certainly not foolproof, but there's a pretty clear set of rules for how to protect our children from external injuries: Wear a helmet. Look both ways before crossing the street. Don't swim in the ocean when the red flag is up. Don't drink and drive.

How the hell are we supposed to protect them from themselves? I really worry about those WORRIES.

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